Virtual Church

All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.  What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.  The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.  We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.  Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.  While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.  That community has become virtual, as of today.

This isn’t a permanent thing.  Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.  As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.  Sermons would need to be stellar.  Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?  My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.  Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.  What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?  Does the minister see you in virtual church?  Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?  I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.  Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.

The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.  At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.  Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.  As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.  I did not use a computer until after seminary.  Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.  If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.  These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.  For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.  I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.  We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.  It was only a joke, then; really it was.

Truth, Justice, and

Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Boston University School of Theology long before I did.  We remember him today as a great leader, a man willing to die for what he believed in.  And all these years later we’re still struggling to find some semblance of racial equality.  We can’t seem to admit that race is a social construct and not a scientific category.  Indeed, the only race is the human race.  King saw that, and staked his life on it.  Today we’re ruled by politicians who, when faced with the truth immediately shout “fake news!”  “Liberal!”  They may stop short of using some words not because they don’t want to, but because they could cost them at the polls come November.  America is watching.  I’m sitting here thinking how Martin Luther King died when I was just five.  He’d started something righteous and just.  And millions were out marching in the cold on Saturday to say we still believe in justice. 

I didn’t pick Boston University School of Theology just because King was its most famous alum.  The other day a guy noticed my BU stocking cap and asked if it was “Boston University.”  This wasn’t an educated person, but I’m guessing that most school paraphernalia has to do with sports and the game was on in the background, so the question was logical.  I told him it was Binghamton University, a school with which I also have an intimate connection, one step removed.  He said, “Binghamton!  I saw your cap and thought Baylor?  No.  Must be Boston.”  But ironically he ended up with the right school for me, but the wrong school for what I was wearing.  I did pick BU because I realized that strong academics are nothing without social justice.  Of course, academia wanted nothing to do with that.

Recently I read how Republican resentment towards liberals has very solid roots in racism.  Oh, they will deny it—their “fake news” trigger-finger is very itchy—but the whole package is tied up with anger that an African-American was elected president.  Follow that up with an old, white racist.  How will history look back on this insane era?  I think we already know.  While the privileged are trying to build their own legacies, I ponder an African-American preacher with clear vision as the one we remember today.  I went to Boston University naive and full of hope.  I heard a lot about King when I was there.  I knew something of dreams and how costly they could be.  Today I sit here and cuddle the epithet “liberal” and think how it’s become a swear word for some, while its real meaning of “justice” continues to go unheeded.

Conservation?

I am not a conservative.  There, I’ve said it.  You have very little control over who your parents are or how they raise you.  As I confessed here many times, I was raised in a conservative Christian home of the fundamentalist stripe.  Like most kids scared of Hell I took it all very seriously.  It is the reason I followed the career path—or perhaps career swamp trek—that I have.  In any case, the other day I was looking through a Baker Academic catalogue.  Baker, in case you don’t follow the high drama of the publishing industry, is one of the many Christian publishing houses with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Like most publishers in that collective, it tends toward the conservative end of the theological spectrum.  As I flipped through I noticed bio after bio of authors with Ph.D.s from Edinburgh, Cambridge, and other prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

I hadn’t been warned, you see.  Many conservatives who want a doctorate study in the UK because they can do so without taking all those classes that will make them examine the Bible critically.  That’s not why I went to Edinburgh, but I can see how it might look like that from the outside.  I went to Grove City College—a bastion of conservatism.  (I was raised that way, remember?)  My next educational move should give the lie to my attempt to remain conservative; Boston University School of Theology was considered the most liberal United Methodist seminary in the pre-Internet days.  I attended for that very reason.  Edinburgh, my true alma mater, was selected because they offered a scholarship that made it possible for a poor kid to finish a doctorate.  I wasn’t conservative when I went, and I wasn’t conservative when I came out.

I didn’t get the memo, I guess.  The sneaking suspicion that I might be conservative has dogged my career.  My dissertation can be read that way, but it’s not a conservative argument.  I merely suggested the decision to marry Yahweh off to Asherah was a bit hasty, based on the actual evidence.  I’m all for married deities—they tend to be less frustrated toward humanity.  Maybe the Almighty could speak to Mrs. God about correcting these worries about what I “really believe.”  I went to a conservative college to learn—there were a fair number of attempts to indoctrinate there, but if you thought about things you could see through them, even with a fundie upbringing.  But as I thumb through the catalogue I can see how perceptions can work against you, especially when your first job is at a conservative seminary, eh, Mrs. God?  

Iron Ages

I find myself in Pittsburgh again.  We set out from the former steel city of Bethlehem and ended up in the former steel city on the other side of the state.  I’m not here for the metal, of course, but to visit family.  Making our way over the great eroded spine of the ancient Appalachians, I was thinking of how cities often take on the identity of their industries.  Pittsburgh and Bethlehem vied with each other for their facility with unyielding iron—one of the technologies so important to human history that we still use the Iron Age as a marker of advancing technology.  Pittsburgh’s now a tech city, much reduced in size from its heyday when only fifteen cities in the country were larger.  Bethlehem, it seems, is still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be.

Back in college, I used to work in a church in the south hills.  I haven’t been to Windover Hills United Methodist Church since those days.  I was weighing my future then, deciding to attend Boston University School of Theology—the seminary the pastor had attended—and exposing myself to liberal thinking rather than more of the conservative milquetoast that was mistaken for milk and honey at Grove City College.  The memories that attended the drive were powerful and poignant.  I only lived in Pittsburgh two summers—the second working as a bagger at a grocery store (I should’ve known then where a college degree in religious studies might lead, even if summa cum laude).  As iron sharpens iron, so the Good Book says.

Recently I tried to recall all the addresses at which I’ve lived.  This seems particularly important because many of the buildings no longer stand and I greatly fear being erased.  Those of us who write often do.  I can recall the cities and even a few of the streets.  Numbers often escape me, for they seem to be mere place holders.  My days in Pittsburgh were decades ago, when life was really only just beginning.  Now I drive these hills with memories my only maps, wondering if I can find the place I’m seeking.  This place is part of me, even as Bethlehem is now becoming such a piece.  Cities change depending on the laws of supply and demand that can, as we know, even break iron.  And those of us who live in such places know that any industry is subject to memory, whether of God or of steel.

The Dots

Connections have always fascinated me.  Maybe it’s because life is a random stream of stuff constantly thrown at you that makes a mockery of any plans you might try to implement.  Me at Nashotah House?  Really?  Nevertheless, these events shape us and everything that happens thereafter is seen in light of them.  So when connections occur amid this continual flux, I sit up and take notice.  For example, I had never thought of moving to eastern Pennsylvania.  Now, around Christmastime, I find myself not far from Bethlehem.  Bethlehem was so named because it was founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians who’d settled in the area.  Although not counted among the most numerous of Protestants today, Moravians had a profound effect on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.  In fact, he met Count Zinzendorf, whose name appears on this handsome plaque in historic downtown Bethlehem, at a pivotal moment in his own spiritual journey.

Having grown up Fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church would not have been our choice, although we had unwittingly attended one of the Methodist offshoots—the Church of the Nazarene—from time to time.  In one of those unplanned things, we found ourselves in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where the only Protestant church was United Methodist.  Once ensconced in the UMC it was my plan to become a minister in that tradition.  That led me to Boston University School of Theology where I first learned about the Wesley-Zinzendorf connection.  It was also there that I met my wife.  And subsequently joined the Episcopal Church.  Why?  John Wesley had been adamant that his followers not drop out of the church in which he was an ordained priest.  I was only following instructions.

Had that not happened I would never have had my first, and so far only, full-time academic job.  Nashotah House was conservative, and I was not.  We nevertheless had a connection.  Growing up I’d barely heard of Wisconsin, let alone planned to live there.  When Nashotah no longer required my services my career had to change as well.  None of this was in the plan.  Who plans to move to New Jersey?  And now everyone thinks of me as an editor, a fallback position if there ever was one.  Since I work in New York City, moving back to my native Pennsylvania wasn’t really on the agenda.  An outside agent led to that.  So I find myself near Bethlehem in the Christmas season, staring at Count Zinzendorf’s name, which I first heard of in a seminary now far away.  Connections, even with those long gone, are always worth noting.

Galilean Blues

Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips.  In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics).  Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”).  When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.”  It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even.  Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was.  It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.

Spellcheck disagrees.  It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament.  Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic.  This blog should be proof of that.  Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names.  The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country.  Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused.  They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world.  They say kap-er-NEE-um.  Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.

When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day.  Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue.  Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name.  Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor.  Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!).  Important people came from big cities and had family connections.

Some things don’t change much over the millennia.  The famous often find their spotlight because of connections.  If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first.  And it would help to have some product endorsements.  Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in.  Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important.  More than anything, you want something people can pronounce.  And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.

The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained. 

Girls to Men

Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.

I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.

The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.

Alma Mater Matter

I was a teen-age religion major. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I did start college at 19 and, being a first generation matriculant, had no idea about majors. No idea about colleges either. The school you choose stays with you for your life—especially if you decide to go into academia. A couple of recent events brought this home to me again. Grove City College is stridently conservative. Since I was raised Republican, it felt like a good fit at the time. It was cheap and close to home, and since my parental contribution was a total sum of zero, both of these factors counted heavily. Overlooked by many a hiring committee, it was also academically rigorous at the time. For better or worse, it’s now on my permanent record. Enough ancient history.

Recently a colleague asked me about an author, noting his undergraduate degree was from a school not unlike Grove City. I saw myself from the outside (yet again). Conservatism can be a lifestyle choice. My fellow religion-major grovers mostly went on to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary or other bastions of further conservative thought. Their minds were already made up. In their early twenties, no less. I headed to Boston University, at the time the most liberal of the United Methodist seminaries, by reputation. But still my record says “Grove City.” My academic writings should leave no doubt as to my scholarly outlook (most of these papers are available on Academia.edu), but there is always a shadow of suspicion over a former grover. You can’t change your alma mater, no matter what the next decision you make says about you.

Then I came across a recent writing sample from one of my Grove City professors who’s still on the faculty. This piece showed that as this faculty member was in the early eighties, so he is still today. Biblical literalism all the way down. With over three-and-a-half decades to read, that’s incredible to me. I guess I just don’t share the kind of arrogance that declares you got it right the first time and that everything you read confirms a literal Adam and Eve. And a snake and a tree. What am I to think when I see a conservative undergraduate school on someone’s academic record? I would hope that I would know to look at the next step to see what that reveals. I am a grover, but a bad grover, I guess. You have to know how to read a permanent record.

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Signed, Sealed, Forgotten

the_seventh_sign

I’m a little ashamed to admit it. With such a long list of moody horror movies out there, I gave in to watching The Seventh Sign again. 1988 was a momentous year. I had graduated from Boston University School of Theology the year before and had been functionally unemployed, as befits a future adjunct professor. I had joined the Episcopal Church, cutting off my chances of ordination in my previous United Methodist sect. I’d been accepted into doctoral programs at Oxford, St Andrews, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh but couldn’t afford any of them. I proposed to my future wife and by the end of the year had married her. In the midst of it all a friend convinced me to go see The Seventh Sign, then in theaters. A typical end of the world movie, The Seventh Sign was a “see once” movie to me, but I guess I’m weaker than I thought.

The movie got me to thinking about the end of the world. Not literally, but rather how we came to have such a strange idea. As creatures conscious of our own deaths, I suppose it’s natural that we think everything comes to an end. The mythical scenario of “the end of days,” however, is cobbled together from various pieces of the Bible, like some distorted, religious picture puzzle. The Book of Revelation doesn’t give a coherent story of the future. In seminary I learned that it was because Revelation is actually about what was happening in the Roman Empire in the first century, not about what would happen in the days when I happened to find myself conscious and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese, mixed with water instead of milk and working for Ritz Camera. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. That was my own kind of personal apocalypse, I guess.

The Seventh Sign is unusual in that a Jewish boy, Avi, and a lapsed Christian woman, Abby (who rents a room to the new incarnation of Jesus who lives, apparently, quite a lot like I did at the time) have to figure this out together. Tying in several other mythological motifs, the number of seals broken is, if I count correctly, only five. The world is saved by self-sacrifice, as is generally expected, and everyone ends up feeling let down. It is a downer of a movie, and not very scary for a horror film. What struck me was how many scenes I remembered so precisely. So I guess it did manage to impress me on some level, back in 1988. I selected Edinburgh University and now once again, find myself outside the institution I covet. I’m still waiting to see what happens with those two last seals.

Two Unrelated Stories

Harvard University’s been in the news. Well, Harvard makes the news, so that not news. The first story that has appeared is that Harvard, like me, is giving it away. Information on religion, that is. Like a fire sale. Or making room for next season’s fashions. According to the Anglican Journal, Harvard is offering a free world religions class online. Some of us who have degrees in various world religions offer similar services but, well, we are not Harvard, are we? This isn’t really sour grapes, but I see my colleagues’ blogs—those who teach anywhere, not necessarily at Harvard—and they get plenty of hits. They have institutional backing. That job offer is a seal of quality, don’t you know. Freelancers, well, who trusts them? I’ll professionally prattle on about religion anyway.

Then a colleague sent me a story by Charlotte Allen entitled “Jesus’ Wife: The Final Debunking,” from The Weekly Standard. For those of you not up on the scholarly gossip of the deity’s latest amorous exploits, some time ago a Harvard professor advocated for a fragment of a lost gospel purporting to mention Jesus’ wife. The media had it’s little frenzy (like father, like son, so it seemed), and scholars argued—which is what they do. Most saw this fragment as an obvious fake, but when someone from Harvard declares otherwise the media listens. Now, in a piece of investigative reporting soon to appear in The Atlantic, the origins of this fake manuscript are pretty much laid out for all to see. It seems that being at the only true university in this country isn’t really the basis for not being taken in by forgers. I’m not picking on the professor—we’ve all been taken in by clever forgers—we want to believe. Deception happens all the time and all over the place: “ancient” documents are faked, someone makes money or notoriety, and we all go home shamefaced at the end of the day. Still, there’s a point to be made.

DSCN3510

Humans are worshipful beings. If you want a job in higher education your best bet is to attend Harvard. It opens doors for you. While in seminary at Boston University School of Theology, I applied for transfer to Harvard Divinity School and was accepted. I decided not to cross that river, however. Edinburgh was my future. In Scotland, I spent my dissertation attempting to show just how thin the evidence was for Yahweh’s wife, if you take the time to look at each piece. Naturally, the dissertation and subsequent book were largely ignored. Edinburgh used to be the Athens of the North, but it’s not Harvard, though. Now scholars are beginning to question the new orthodoxy of a happily married deity. While the academic dispute goes from one bed to another, it begins to sound like Days of Our Lives. Scholarly drama may not be front page news, but it doesn’t fail to entertain.

Scholarly Synchronicity

Simon Parker STH Professor April 2, 1999 PORTRAIT

Simon Parker
STH Professor
April 2, 1999
PORTRAIT

One of the great ironies in my life is having been basically ignored while I was employed in higher education only to have people make overtures to me once I no longer had the resources to undertake the task. I’ve been asked to peer review articles, and write articles and contribute to books. I even had a series editor try to get me to write a monograph. Thing is, I don’t have regular access to a library, and I spend eleven hours a day either at work or getting to and from work. When am I going to find time to write a well-researched book or article? Well, I’ve been working on my Society of Biblical Literature article since May and it should be ready by November. If it weren’t based on pop culture, I could never have managed it under present circumstances. Still, when a colleague asked me to contribute to Simon Parker’s Festschrift I couldn’t say no. Although I didn’t take classes with Simon, he was Academic Dean when I was at Boston University School of Theology. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we shared an interest in Ugaritic studies, and we exchanged articles and ideas via letter when I was in Edinburgh. We became friends. Simon died suddenly the year I lost my job at Nashotah House.

Since that time I’ve written over a couple thousand blog posts, and read a few hundred books, but that’s not the same as academic research. I’ve been worried about what I might contribute to do honor to a scholar and a gentleman. Then I tried looking at some old files from two laptops ago. Of course the new laptop can’t open them (that’s why Scrivener is a lifesaver). I pulled out a paper that I wrote the year I lost my job. I never did finish it, but it was well underway when my confidence began to crumble. After translating it to the new decade, I opened it only to find the first footnote dedicating it to Simon Parker. I stopped, stunned. That can’t be right. When I wrote this I knew nothing of a Festschrift. Then it hit me. I had originally written the article just after I learned of Simon’s untimely death. Do I still believe in signs?

So now I have a base from which to start. I have only a couple months to bang it into shape, and I also have to finish my SBL article. While at Nashotah House I produced an article a year and a second book (published only last year), i.e., the “academic standard.” Nobody invited me to contribute. Now that I have no time, people are finally interested in what I might have to say. Not interested enough, of course, to offer me an academic position, but it does look like the publication record might continue after all. It won’t be what it could have been had I had a library, but I am nevertheless honored. One of the accolades that academics covet is having colleagues care enough to write something for you. I guess that’s been on my mind for a decade in the case of Simon Parker. I only hope that I can do him proud from where I am.